(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)
I approached the Zapatistas with skepticism. What were they? Who were they? Were they promoting a political philosophy I don't believe in? And, in fact, were they promoting ideas I find repugnant, such as violent revolution against a government and theft of property? Could these people be called terrorists back home in America?
What I found was nothing that I had feared. The people were kind and generous, and not at all hate-filled. Despite some rather harsh judgments of America's role in screwing them, they understand that individual Americans are not the American government, and they also have no interest in taking over or harming countries outside their own. All they want is a bit of land to grow their corn on, to educate their children, build and operate hospitals, and - as they put it - dignity.
This was best stated by a man named Moises (Moi for short), who walked up to us and began speaking while we were in Nuevo San Gregorio. I had no idea what he was saying for the first few minutes, until Peter walked up and began translating for me. And - WOW.
This is my best attempt at an exact transcript, but I promise you it is quite flawed. At best, it is the exact wording of Peter's translation, but not Moi's words in Spanish. At worst, it's my own paraphrasing of Peter's translation. Keep in mind as you read that Moi lives in a community that was once a large hacienda. The owner of the hacienda treated the indigenous people as slaves. The Zapatistas took this land in the 1994 revolution.
Those that dominate care more for their chickens than they do for the indigenous. They don't treat us like humans. They care more for their cows. They build them small houses, give them good food, shampoo them. They give peasants who work for them no pay, only the land that is too bad for the cows to grow food on [as compensation for work]. I know this.
My father worked in a coffee plantation. A very famous German-owned one. It was sustainable, organic, and it got lots of eco-tourists. They treat the workers like animals. For this I say those who dominate don't care about the indigenous.
I don't have money, but I have friends. It's all of you. What's important is the relationships. People come to see us. We know people. But here we are close to the city. What about those who are further out, who don't have a road? [Note: The road where Moi lives is very poor and was only built a few years ago.] The others in the Mexican countryside should take over the Casa Grandes [Big Houses of haciendas].
Before 1994, nobody thought it was possible. And if some of us have to die, we're gonna die shouting. The only place in this valley with electricity was the Casa Grande. You could see it for miles around. We're still using their transformer.
Zapatista rhetoric includes statements against the "capitalists." We in America are raised with an orthodoxy of capitalism. If you don't like being poor, you work and you try to become rich. Well, 500 years of capitalism has proved to the Zapatistas that they will never be much more than slaves no matter how hard they work, and they aren't buying it anymore. But that doesn't mean they want to become us. They don't want to own corporations, or even haciendas, and they don't want to buy their food at the store and make their money by going to an office wearing a suit every day. They just want to be peasants, bothering nobody, without being exploited.
Does that justify Robinhood-like theft of property? In the U.S., if I don't like that Bill Gates has more than me, should I take his house? I would say no. But in the case of the Zapatistas, in the extremes they were living in, where they were more or less slaves, I think taking enough land to grow their own food is much more justified. And, as they are indigenous people, it is land that was once theirs, that was taken from them centuries ago.
What about violence? I did not get the full quote, but Raquel found a Zapatista saying that said, "The soldiers shoot at the ground to kill those who are already dead. Zapatistas shoot in the air, to wake up history." What I came away with was the impression that the Zapatistas are NOT pro-violence.
They will defend themselves and use violence as a last resort. They are willing to die for their cause, and many have. Others are in jail. We passed an enormous prison complex on one of our drives, and Peter said the government built it with the plans of rounding up all of the Zapatistas and putting them in prison. They just haven't done it yet because they don't have the stomach or the political will to lock up tens of thousands of people and kill many in the process.
I heard one story that I find particularly telling about the Zapatistas use of violence (or lack thereof). At one point, a man - a non-Zapatista - was visiting a Caracol and he dropped something out of his wallet in front of a group of Zapatistas. It was a Mexican military ID and everyone saw it. The man quickly ran away, and the Zapatistas followed him, running.
But the Zapatistas passed him and kept running. They ran to the next town, and got the women there to attack the Mexican soldier. The women stripped him of his clothes and tied him to a tree, naked. They left him for a day, and then let him go without his clothes. Surely they taught him a lesson, but they did not actually harm him beyond discomfort and embarrassment.